10 place names that ended up in the dictionary

New etymological guide Around the World in 80 Words by Paul Anthony Jones takes the reader on a circumnavigation of the English language, tracing the meanings and histories of eighty words derived from world place names. To whet your globetrotting appetite, here are ten of the book’s most fascinating entries …


Olivier Basselin was a miller in the town of Vire, Normandy, who became known across France in the fifteenth century for his bawdy poems and drinking songs. Published in an anthology in 1610, Basselin’s Chansons de Vau-de-Vire—“Songs of the Vire Valley”—quickly found a wider audience across Europe, including in England, where his native Vau-de-Vire morphed into a much more familiar word: we’ve had vaudeville entertainments ever since.


The tiny Czech town of Jáchymov is the origin of one the world’s most familiar words. Originally known as Joachimsthal, Jáchymov was once home to a silver mine that produced such fine-quality silver that its produce was used all across Europe to mint coinage. These coins became known as joachimsthaler, but as that word proved such a mouthful it quickly became truncated to thaler, and eventually morphed into dollar.


On the subject of unassuming towns giving us immensely well known words, the tiny Hungarian village of Kócs was once known all across Europe for the quality of its horse-drawn carriages. These carriages soon caught on far and wide among Europe’s royals and ruling classes—and in English, the town’s name, Kócs, eventually morphed into coach.


At the less well known end of the dictionary is the curious expression ‘siege of Gibraltar’, a term from eighteenth century naval slang used as an excuse for having a drink no matter what time of day it is. The phrase alludes to the fact that Gibraltar has been besieged so many times in history that the chances are good that there’s an anniversary of at least one siege coming up sometime soon. So if you’re ever caught having a drink when you really shouldn’t—or, if you’re looking for an excuse to have a drink when you really want one—claiming that you’re toasting “the anniversary of the siege of Gibraltar” is a good bet…


Stellenbosch in South Africa was once home to a so-called ‘remount’ camp, used by the British Army to train and house horses during the Boer Wars. Horses were hugely important to the war effort but looking after them was hardly front line duty, and ultimately any officer whose tactics on the front line did not quite pay off might find himself Stellenbosched—that is, sent to the camp to take care of the horses, rather than being left in charge of British troops’ lives on the battlefront. The town’s name consequently became a byword for a tactical demotion: the removal of someone from a high-ranking post to a position of equal importance but lesser impact.


According to an old Mesopotamian folktale, a Baghdad merchant once sent his servant down to the local marketplace to pick up supplies, but once there the servant happened to bump into Death. The servant fled back to his master’s shop, and begged him to let him borrow his best horse so that he could flee Baghdad for Samarra, 80 miles north. The shopkeeper agreed, and his servant escaped—leaving the shopkeeper to return to the market himself to pick up his supplies. There, he too happened to see Death, whom he angrily told had cost him his faithful servant and best horse. “I am sorry, but I did not mean to threaten your servant,” Death explained. “I was merely surprised to see him in Baghdad—as I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” The phrase an appointment in Samarra has ultimately fallen into use in English as a memento mori—a reminder of the inevitability and inescapability of the last of all things.


A British military transit camp was established in Deolali, 100 miles from Mumbai, in 1861. New arrivals would be acclimatised at the camp before being posted elsewhere, while all those whose tour of duty was now over would remain at Deolali until transportation home was available. Unfortunately for some, however, the long wait proved too much: in the oppressive heat and cramped, festering conditions, disease, madness and suicide among the British troops were commonplace, and ultimately the camp’s name inspired the word doolally, a synonym for ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’.


There can’t be many locations in the Marshall Islands that have ended up in the dictionary, but there’s at least one: the Bikini Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean was the site of America’s atomic bomb tests in the mid 1940s, and as news of these groundbreaking experiments was reported worldwide, French fashion designer Louis Réard borrowed the island’s name for a scandalous new two-piece bathing costume he had designed for a fashion show in Paris in 1946. Réard wanted his swimsuit to have as much impact on the fashion world as an atom bomb—and he succeeded, as we’ve had bikinis ever since.


Admiralty Island, one of the largest islands of the long chain of islands that occupy Alaska’s southern coast, is known to its native Tlingit people as Xootsnoowú. But that name is such an unfamiliar mouthful that when English-speaking gold prospectors arrived in the area in the 1800s—and, more importantly, began purchasing the local Tlingit homebrewed firewater—they promptly transformed it into something much more manageable to English tongues. The island, its people, and their impossibly strong liquor all ultimately became known as hooch, and we’ve used that word ever since to describe any illicit or poor-quality alcohol.


Back in 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a vivid dream about the Chinese city of Xanadu, and on waking hastily scribbled down fifty or so lines of poetry that would ultimately become some of his most famous: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…” Having envisaged that the poem would become a great literary epic, unfortunately Coleridge’s fit of inspiration was cut short, as he later recalled, by a knock on his door and an unsolicited visit by “a person on business from Porlock.” The interruption, and the loss of what could have been an even greater work of literature, ultimately lie behind the expression a man from Porlock—a term for someone who unexpectedly arrives at your home at the least convenient time.

Around the World in 80 Words – A Journey Through the English Language is published by Elliott & Thompson, £12.99 hardback.

Follow Paul on Twitter @HaggardHawks for obscure words and language facts.

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